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An era of alliances The Excelsior 18 May 2021
President Joe Biden, while making his first address to the joint session of the US Congress, stated, ‘No one nation can deal with all the crisis of our time alone- from terrorism to nuclear proliferation, mass migration, cybersecurity and what we are experiencing now with pandemics.’ The US has shifted strategic focus from Russia to China. Hence, Biden stated that he has warned China that the US will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific mainly to prevent a conflict. He added that America will not back away from its commitments including alliances.
Biden also announced the re-arrival of the US on the global stage adding it would actively display its presence in regions where global norms are being challenged. It is evident that most of the current global challenges emerge from China, whether it is display of military aggressiveness, economic blackmailing, wolf warrior diplomacy or debt trap loans for the Belt Road Initiative. The US is of the opinion that a strong military presence in Asia will prevent China from exploiting its claims on island territories of other nations.
Multiple ASEAN countries have territorial disputes concerning their claimed islands in the South and East China sea’s, while India faces Chinese intrusions in Ladakh. The EEZ around these islands are expected to be resource rich and hence are eyed by China. SE Asian nations lack military capacity to challenge Chinese intrusions. Further, interlinking of global manufacturing and supply chains leads to fear of Chinese economic threats which could impact growth. The US has military alliances with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. South Korea and the Philippines fear Chinese backlash and hence have not endorsed the QUAD. However, challenges from China have led to countries of the region enhancing defence budgets.
The signing of the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) has further integrated economies of ASEAN nations with China, making it difficult for them to back the US or any other alliance against China. Thus, while they desire US and QUAD military presence, they fear taking sides against China. It has only been India which has stood tall and challenged China in Ladakh.
The latest announcement of the Indian government to exclude Chinese companies from 5G telecom trials displays the firm Indian intent of linking economic and political normalcy with resolution of the border issue. This has hurt Chinese ego and the Chinese ambassador complained of the same. Prior to the Ladakh crisis, Chinese telecom giants were being considered for all Indian projects. The message, which Jaishankar has been conveying, has now been understood by the Chinese, which is that unless China behaves as a responsible nation, normalcy can never be restored.
Global economies have over time become heavily interdependent. This hit nations hard when the first wave of the pandemic began to spread. Dependence on China as the originator of the global supply chain, its blackmailing nations and overcharging for medical equipment led the world to reconsider their dependency and re-locate essential supply chains, despite the costs. India became a reliable global medicine supplier.
As stated by Biden, in his speech, nation’s face multiple challenges. In the current scenario, challenges which impact the world, apart from growing Chinese aggressiveness, is global economic downslide led by the pandemic, increased internal unemployment and containing the pandemic.
Chinese economic wars against Australia, US and other nations which questioned its actions and demand accountability on the origin of the pandemic displayed that China would resort to any offensive measure to force nations to accept its hegemony. This action, against global norms, adds to global challenges.
Simultaneously, China seeks to break global norms and rules to expand its territory as also project its ideology. Its intention to claim the South and East China Sea would impact global trade. China is also projecting itself as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific, replacing the US. It also seeks to convey a message that it is challenging the US for global domination and would achieve it in a few decades. The battle of democracy versus autocracy is growing by the day, moving the world back to the Hitler era, where Germany projected its form of government as the most successful for its people.
Prior to the G 7 summit, US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, stated that the west would defend ‘international rules-based orders’ from subversive attempts by any country, including China. The British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab discussed the aspect of building alliances to meet growing challenges emerging from China. He stated, ‘I do see the increasing demand and need for agile clusters of like-minded countries that share the same values and want to protect the multilateral system.’ The closing statement of the G7 sent a message to China challenging its claims in the region as also hit China where it hurt the most, its human rights record.
To counter these new challenges, allies and alliances are an essential framework in an interlinked world, especially when strategic interests and desired end states are common. There would always be differences within allies and even within alliance partners, as each nation would desire to keep its own national interests and beliefs above all else. These differences would need to be handled by astute diplomacy to ensure that they do not undermine the core reason for the creation of alliances.
For an emerging economic and military powerhouse like India, with a vast global dependency for military equipment and a compulsion to maintain an independent foreign policy as also avoid being involved in conflict zones which are not its choosing, allies are a better option than alliances. Hence, India has chosen joining groups of democracies to offset its current challenges. It is seeking allies with western hemisphere democracies where there is convergence of strategic interests. Though India is firmly in the US camp, it is hesitant to join any alliance led by the US. Nor is it willing to sign any defence treaty with the US.
The Indian armed forces possess the capability of ensuring national security and thwarting any military challenges the nation faces. India’s battles with China or Pakistan would be fought by it alone, hence an alliance has little value. India seeks technology upgrades, investments in economy, presence to counter Chinese aggressiveness in the Asia-Pacific and support in global forums. These are best met by allies.